Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2016

2015-16 CU vs Washington State Basketball Preview #2: Lining Up a 3-foot Putt

I don't like the phrase 'must win,' mostly because it's over-used.  Outside of elimination games, no game is a true 'must win.'  I prefer 'better win,' as it's aimed directly at the heart of what the phrase is supposed to be implying -- you'd 'better win,' because the alternative is uncomfortable or unpalatable.

What I'm getting at is that tonight's game against the Washington State Cougars is a game that the Colorado Buffaloes better win.  Having been swept in Oregon over two ugly games last weekend, the Buffs need their mojo back.  That much is absolutely true.  But, more importantly, they need to forestall any ongoing damage their Tournament profile.  No one in the league, not even the free-falling Stanford Cardinal, can wreak as much havoc in the Selection Committee's perception of a team than the Cougs.  They are, far and away, the worst team in this conference (RPI ranking around 185), and a loss to them, particularly at home, will get printed in big, bold letters at the top of any team's resume.

Realistically, a loss by CU this evening alone won't knock them out of the Tournament, it wouldn't even necessarily put them on the bubble (most prognosticators have CU as an 8/9 or better right now, FWIW).  What it would do, however, is put a reason on paper for them to get slighted on Selection Sunday (more for seeding than inclusion), putting more and more pressure on the results over the balance of February and early March.  Better to just avoid the uncomfortable conversations, and claim an easy, free-flowing victory over WSU this evening.


Hype Music for the Evening: "Stacy's Mom" by the Fountains of Wayne (Video largely NSFW, btw. *shrugs* Proceed with caution)

Who the hell are the Fountains of Wayne?  I knew the song, but had no idea who was behind it. Anyways, hey, the Cougars are in town!  I figure this is an appropriate tune, mostly because I am the mental equivalent of a 12 year old.  Enjoy!


Tip-off from the CEC is set for 8pm tonight. A little bit of a late start, but no reason we can't all pack the CEC.  Also: puppies! Televised coverage for those scared of a little night cap can be found on Pac-12 Networks, with the radio call on AM 760.

For reference, my preview from the first game can be found here.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Faced with the damning prospect of getting swept on their 'easiest' road trip of the year, our BasketBuff heroes swung eastward down I-90, pulled off at US 195, and rolled down the dusty trail towards the league's lone truck-stop (all apologies to Bill Walton): Pullman, WA.  Compared to the breezy track meet of their loss a few nights prior in Seattle, this was a plodding, possession-by-possession affair played to only 69 trips.  But, Colorado didn't turn the ball over like they did earlier that week (or like they did in Corvallis), watched as the Cougars bricked 11 of 27 free throw attempts, and escaped with a 75-70 win that kept them in that absurd tie for 3rd place we had for a while. All-in-all, I would give this game two shrugs up!
Huh.  Conor Clifford. Who knew.  From: the AP
I kid, and there's no reason to look a road-dub in the mouth, but, much like the effort in Palo Alto against Stanford, the final was far from convincing.  CU allowed WSU, objectively the worst team in the Pac-12, to shoot damn near 49% from the field for the game, something that probably shaved a full year off the life expectancy of Coach Boyle.  Part of that was the result of an absolute inability to stop Cougar scoring guard Ike Iroegbu. As expected, he was far too fast for any of Colorado's perimeter defenders, and abused them off the edge for 27 points on 12-20 shooting.  If he had pulled an Andrew Andrews, and gone for 33, the Buffs lose by a point, so I guess good job at holding him there?   What wasn't expected, though, was the stellar performance off the bench of JuCo transfer forward Conor Clifford. With Josh Scott on the bench with two first half fouls, he came in and torched the 'going small' Buffs, setting the table for a big 18/5 night on 8/9 shooting. Behind Clifford and Josh Hawkinson, the Cougars won the battle in the paint, 40-30, something I did not see coming.

But, wins, particularly those claimed away from home, don't just happen by accident.  Three things keyed the Buffs that night in Pullman: elimination of turnovers, free throw shooting, and the return of the bench.  Just a game after they coughed up 16 turnovers, 12 in the first half, CU cut that number all the way down to six, just one in the opening frame.  They especially needed to hold on to the ball because the offense was struggling. 39% shooting for the game, and only two players in double figures (George King and Josh Scott); a lot of Buffs were grinding out there.  They buoyed those numbers by staying cool and composed at the line, though. While the Cougars were busy bricking their freebies, CU hit 22-26 of their free throw attempts for the game, including all eight attempts in the final two minutes. Finally, the prolific bench that we saw in Boulder against Oregon re-emerged to drop 21/11 against just one turnover. While the Cougar bench eclipsed that number (thanks to Clifford), those 21 proved to be very important points as the team struggled with foul trouble at the end of the first half.
George King: makin' those free throws!  From:
There's not much else to say about it, the Buffs simply got done what needed doing.  It's the sign of a good (but not necessarily great) team to sink their eight-foot putts on the road.  Sure, nothing less should've been expected, but I find it hard to coherently gripe about a bog standard road victory.  They don't have to be pretty, they don't have to set the world a flame, but they do have to get slotted in the left-hand column -- minimum standard achieved.

Now, however, comes the return leg.  Against the weakest team in the Pac-12 on home hardwood, what was an eight-foot putt starts to look more like a three-footer.  Will the Buffs choke on it in light of recent struggles and push it wide, or will they be able to hole-out the gimmie?  Let's find out...

The Cougars since then - 

If you thought Washington State had an ugly profile before the first matchup, it has only gotten worse since. Their then-four game losing streak in Pac-12 play has ballooned out to a full set of nine-straight losses against league opponents, careening them deeply into the conference's basement. They now sit two games back of even the lowly ASU Sun Devils, and seem destined for the 12-seed in Las Vegas. WSU's efforts last week at home against the Arizonas were a slightly better showing then their combined 43 points of losing the week prior in Los Angeles, but were, nonetheless, noncompetitive affairs.
WSU has mostly been playing the role of 'also pictured' this season.  From:
That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise.  The Cougars remain last or next-to-last in the Pac-12 across a number of major statistical categories, including bottom-of-the-barrel showings in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  Washington State actually scores a respectable amount of raw points, but's it's offset by how quickly they've been playing (a little over 72 possessions per), and UW may have allowed more than them per game, but the 'Dawgs also like to get in track meets.  Nope, no one is as statistically unsound as these guys, a fact that has been hammered home as WSU has gone 2-12 over their last 14 ballgames.

That doesn't mean that playing the Cougs is completely devoid of danger, however.  They lead the conference in percentage of scoring inside the arc, and the team has proven very capable within 15-feet.  In that loss to Arizona from last week, they actually raced out to an 17-9 lead.  While that was quickly erased by normal Giant Death Robot action, it was a momentary scare born out of a number of inside and mid-range looks opening up the Wildcat defense.  Remember that WSU actually got the better of the play in the paint in the first meeting; we may see similar tonight.
What joy there has been in Pullman this year is based on scoring inside the arc.  From: WSU Athletics
Further, State continues to do a decent job forcing opponents off the three point line, and limiting assists.  They're top-four in the Pac-12 in both categories, something that seems to be a true trend, rather than an anomaly.  For the Buffs, who share the ball on nearly 90% of all three-point makes, this may inform why they struggled a bit in Pullman.  For that first game, Colorado only shot 5-15 from deep, solidly below their season averages.  We've seen what can happen to overall output when CU struggles to hit their three pointers, and a similar performance this evening would only frustrate further.

Why things could be different - 

Both teams have some big questions marks under the paint, which casts a shadow over the proceedings.  We in BuffNation are fully aware of the first half ankle injury Josh Scott picked up in Corvallis, but the Cougars are similarly dealing with some injury woes among their forward corps. Josh Hawkinson - the team's leading scorer and rebounder, and shoe-in for 2nd Team All-Pac-12 status - was sidelined last week with his own ankle injury, and his status for tonight is still in doubt.  While I've heard that J40 may be in a position to give it a go for CU this evening, I've yet to hear one way or the other on Hawkinson.  Without their double-double threat, Washington State, on paper, at least, would become a significantly easier proposition.
Ike Iroegbu will probably go off, again, tonight.  Dude is good.  From: the Spokesman-Review
I'm not so sure it would practically change all that much, however.  Even without Hawkinson in the lineup, Washington State has pieces that can keep pace inside.  Conor Clifford proved in the last meeting that he could challenge Colorado in the paint, and the Cougs actually recently added back big 6-10, 235 lbs post Valentine Izundu from the injury list.  In his first action since the opening week of conference play, Izundu put in a solid 10/7 performance against Arizona State, and could pair nicely with Clifford at the heart of the WSU interior attack.  Hawkinson is a potentially big absence, but the result will probably be what it was always going to be, regardless of whether or not he suits up.

The biggest question I have, however, is what Colorado plans to do with Ike Iroegbu.  Including dropping 27 on the Buffs in the first game, he's averaging 19 points per over his last five ballgames, and has been the major scoring dynamo for the club in recent weeks.  CU has to keep him out of the lane, has to keep him from grabbing easy buckets at the rim.  There's not an easy answer here, as Ike's faster and quicker than any defensive perimeter option in Black and Gold, but limiting him is key to claiming easy victory tonight.

Prediction - 

My record on the year: 9-2. Against the spread: 5-5-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -0.36 pt/gm)

Lines as of Wednesday @ 5pm - NO LINES POSTED

At home, with the possibility of Josh Scott appearing in the lineup, it's hard not to pick Colorado to win.  There's really no good reason to pick against them, and I'm not even going to try and spin a tale of woe and sacrifice that leads to defeat.

What I will say, however, is that this probably won't be the 30-point blowout it should be.  The combination of Iroegbu and an interior scoring presence should be enough to keep things frustrating and within reason for much of the action.  CU will pull away late, as tide and efficiency takes over, but this game won't go by without its own set of problems.

CU 81 - WSU 63


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